Notes on a Theory…

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Posts Tagged ‘Jacob Hacker

Predistribution, Public Opinion and Unilateral Executive Action

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The Market St Quentin

A market, which exists, unlike “the market” which does not. (St Quinton Saturday Market by M Hobbs)

Matt Bruenig has a good post on predistribution, “measures governments take to reduce or eliminate inequality in market incomes” as “the most viable way to give a boost to low-income workers.”

As far I am concerned, there is no moral or political difference between the two. Predistributive institutions and redistributive institutions are both just institutions. What matters is achieving greater economic equality, not so much the precise institutional regime that we use to get there. If anything, I tend to find so-called redistributive institutions more attractive because they are easier to fine tune and strike me as more liberating.

I certainly agree on the ‘no difference’ point.  Why is it more viable?

But, as Hacker correctly points out, my view is almost certainly an outlying one. For cultural or other reasons, Americans tend to be more supportive of equality-producing measures that get baked into paychecks than they are of equality-producing measures that go through more overt government channels. As a result, the US has a very stingy welfare state and delivers much of its government spending through opaque, submerged mechanisms like tax credits.

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Are the Democrats on Board with the Prosperity, or the Austerity, Agenda?

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[Updated below]

Not long ago I wrote about Prosperity Economics, a report by Hacker and Loewentheil, that seeks to offer a way forward that challenges the dominant approach, called austerity, which involves cutting government spending, supposedly to restore confidence in order to right the ship of the economy.  In point of fact, this actually makes things worse, by reducing aggregate demand (while at the same time producing additional suffering among those who have already suffered the most)–a kind of reverse Keynesianism.  Austerity was used before.  It was pushed by the IMF, the World Bank, and the US government on so-called developing nations, leading them to dismantle their welfare states and sell off public goods and enterprises, which made firms like Citibank even more rich while causing pain and suffering abroad.  (On this, I highly recommend Panic Rules! Everything You Need to Know About the Global Economy, by Robin Hahnel.)

The point of the report isn’t to break new analytical ground, but rather to offer an alternative framework around which progressives can organize to chart a new path.  It has the backing of the labor movement and some civil rights groups.  Hopefully more will sign on.  And thanks to an email I received from Blue America, I’ve learned that it has the support of a number of Democratic candidates as well. (You can see the list here, and donate if you’re so inclined). As of right now, there are ten candidates listed, all for US House races, all non-incumbents.

This should come as no surprise.  The Democrats have embraced austerity for some time.  Here we have a major effort to shift the discourse around addressing our economic problems (and thankfully, many other problems along the way), but the response from Democrats so far has been anemic.

This reminds me of an earlier episode, the Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq.  The Responsible Plan was developed by retired General Paul Eaton and candidate Darcy Burner, and unveiled in March 2008.  It garnered the support of many Democratic candidates that year, and of course Democrats expanded their majorities in both houses in Congress as Barack Obama won the nomination and the presidency in part because of his early opposition to the war. But there was no serious push by Congress to end the war or even take steps towards that.  Ultimately, it was the Iraqis who pressured the Obama Administration to keep the deadline which they have previously pressured the Bush Administration to set.  I thought then, and I think now, that the Responsible Plan was a great idea. But the inability to generate pressure (or to even try) once Democrats took control of the White House poses a pretty serious problem for this approach.   That Democrats stated their support for the goal of ending the war (some of the time) was enough for most people–their own side was to be trusted.  This seems to be how partisanship works, at least at the present time.  But it means that partisans aren’t keeping their own side accountable, with disastrous consequences.

Will this report garner support from members of Congress?  Will activists demand that Democratic incumbents who decry the Ryan budget sign on, and incorporate its message and policies into their campaigns?  This moment, with the election approaching, is the time when incumbents are most open to pressure.  If people wait to make any demands until after the election, in the interests of beating the Republicans at all costs, the moment will pass.

But most of all, let’s not make this just about Democratic officials, or worse still, Obama himself.  Activists, voters, organized interests, commentators and unions — we need to demand better. It’s no good to ask why government or a political party refuses to do things we refuse to mobilize over.  That’s not meant to excuse them.  It’s meant to encourage us to do the main thing that’s actually under our control. Simply put, the answer to the question I posed isn’t set in stone. Nothing in politics is. Every effort to change the world for the better has been told it was impossible, and those critics generally look right as long, but only as long, as we listen.

[Update]: On a related note, David Dayen warns, “The party of  ‘eat your peas’ is not an attractive party,” with bonus video of Corey Robin discussing austerity on Up With Chris.

Partisan Politics and the End of the Union Movement?

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[Updated below]

Back in January, the Center for American Progress put out an issue brief entitled Unions Make Democracy Work Better for the Middle Class.  As it shows clearly, declines in rates of  in union membership and the share of income held by the middle have moved together since the 1960s.  This is just a dramatic illustration of a great deal of evidence that unions produce a stronger middle class and less inequality.  The picture is as clear as it is disturbing.

The point of the chart, as with the report as a whole, was to make the case for the value of unions for society as a whole.  I’m fully convinced, needless to say, but I want to focus on something else for the moment.  Look at the decline in union density and point to where the Democrats held the White House, Congress, or both.  Density certainly declined when Republicans, who have made union busting a central tenet of their faith, have held power, but has it gone up when Democrats have? The Clinton years aren’t distinguishable from the Bush years on either end. There is a small uptick around the beginning of Obama’s presidency, but it’s insignificant in the face of the larger trend.  At this rate, it won’t be that long before union density is zero.  You simply cannot look at this chart and believe that Democratic control of the White House will stand in the way of the end of the union movement or that this is not where we are headed.

This is a fact, and facts, as John Adams said, are stubborn things. Unlike questions about the fate of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), or the impact of Race to the Top (RTTP), or about the relationship between Democrats at the state level and unions, this fact doesn’t leave much room for interpretation.  And it strikes me as one of the more important facts for understanding the challenges for our democracy, our economy, the Democratic Party and the union movement.  Any argument about strategies for the union movement, and the left, has to take this into account.

Something has to be done.  That said, strategies don’t flow automatically from facts, let alone one fact.  Figuring that out requires identifying opportunities, assessing strengths, expanding on models that are working, and any number of other things that facts like this cannot inform.

Of course, a lot of people have been talking about this, but I suspect that even more difficult than finding a roadmap will be enacting the sort of institutional change that would bring it about.  Announcements about change often are nothing more than wishful thinking, and even determined people may find it impossible to turn words into action.  This latter challenge strikes me as the most important piece, and as it stands I’m not sure what the answers are or even what the questions are.

One thing that this sort of institutional change will require is thinking big about what our goals are.  The new report Prosperity for America by Jacob Hacker and Nate Loewentheil and endorsed by the AFL-CIO and a number of other progressive organizations is a great start (I’ll have more to say about that later).  It remains to be seen what will come of this.

But we better figure it out quick.  The clock is ticking on the movement, and our democracy.

[Update]

The always great Josh Eidelson reports on a janitors’ strike by SEIU members in Texas, not exactly the first place you might think of when you think of unions.  Whether they succeed will depend in part of the pressure allies can being to bear on some of the countries most profitable countries, which contract with the companies that employ these janitors and who likely hold all the power here.  Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be getting much attention from anyone else.  If progressives can’t get mobilized to support working people when they go out on a limb, it’s hard to see how these trends are going to turn around.

Written by David Kaib

August 5, 2012 at 11:26 am

Taxes and the Myth of Democratic Efficiency

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Steve Kornacki notes that 19 House Democrats broke with their party on letting the Bush tax break for the richest to expire.  As always, the willingness of some Democrats to defect on votes that the White House and congressional leadership are trying to use to draw a contrast with the Republicans on muddies the message and makes mobilizing one’s own side more difficult.

To be fair, plenty of House Democrats from competitive districts did vote for their party’s tax plan. But almost every incumbent on the “no” list who is seeking reelection is in a competitive or potentially competitive race. This speaks to a phenomenon I wrote about a few weeks ago – that even though voters tell pollsters they like the idea of raising taxes on the rich, they won’t necessarily reward leaders who do it (and, in fact, they may actually punish them). A number of vulnerable House Democrats are sensitive to this possibility, and the result is less unity on the Democratic side than on the GOP side.

Follow the link and what do you find? A story about how Republicans Senators in Indiana and Utah have found themselves under assault in Republican Party nomination battles –assaults which are of course funded by the elite conservative machine.  This is hardly evidence about what voters in Democratic-held districts want.

Does that mean that voters are itching to reward Democrats for voting for raising taxes on the rich? No.  But voters don’t generally reward legislators for how they vote. If legislators and the party make an issue out of something, if they treat their actions are worthy of being rewarded, they might.  But it doesn’t happen automatically.  Kornacki slips here into the myth of democratic efficiency—the idea that electoral outcomes are a straightforward manifestation of aggregated individual opinions, rather than shaped by institutions and elite strategies.  Hacker and Pierson have detailed why this is not the case in particular with the modern Republican Party.  Progressives generally reject the ridiculous claim that this is how the economy works—that investor confidence and workers laziness is responsible for the recession rather than the reduction of aggregate demand, coming from the crash of the housing bubble, reductions in government spending, opportunities for profit that don’t create jobs, the feedback loop of unemployment, etc.

Yet we all too often accept it in politics.

Written by David Kaib

August 3, 2012 at 12:06 pm

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